Around 471,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year, thus making it the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world. In most of the developing countries, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women today. However, in US and UK there has been a drastic decrease in cervical cancer cases.
US witnessed a 70% decline in the death rate of cervical cancer. This is mainly, because there is greater awareness about this disease in these countries. More importantly, people in these countries are aware of the risk factors for cervical cancer.
Various Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
Human Papilloma Virus
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the most well known risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV is a name given to group of viruses. There are more than hundred viruses in this group. These viruses are classified into low risk viruses and high risk viruses. HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 68, and 69 are classified as high risk viruses and these viruses are associated with cervical, vaginal, penile, oral and anal cancer.
Some of these viruses cause papilloma, which is another name for a certain type of wart. These warts can be found on hands, feet, tongue, lips, genital area, and anal area. The genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. The viruses that cause warts are usually low risk. Some of the HPVs are also known to cause skin infection. Some of these viruses can infect the anus, genitals, throat, and tongue.
HPV Infection and Cervical Cancer
Doctors have pointed out that HPV infection is the cause factor for cervical cancer. It has been noted that chronic infection caused by high risk HPVs, especially HPV 16 and HPV18, is more likely to cause cervical cancer.
However, this does not mean that every HPV infection will lead to cervical cancer. The fact is that HPV infection is quite common amongst majority of the people. These infections usually resolve themselves and are of no concern. Even infection with high risk HPVs will not always lead to cancer; however, they do put you at high risk for cervical cancer.
HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases
HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, like chlamydia, increase the risk for cervical cancer. Doctors argue that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system and this makes the infected woman more prone to HPV infection, which as we discussed earlier is a high risk factor for cervical cancer.
Since HIV weakens the immune system, the body’s immune system is unable to fight the pre-cancerous cells. It has been seen that in HIV infected women, these pre-cancerous cells develop into invasive cervical cancer cells at a very fast pace. In a healthy woman, these precancerous cells would have been taken care of by the immune system.
Immune Suppression Drugs
Women with autoimmune diseases are often treated with drugs that suppress their immune system. Autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues and cells, because for some reason it comes to consider them as alien or foreign. The immune system attacks them just as it attacks germs, viruses and other foreign things when they enter a body.
Women who have recently had organ transplant are also given immune suppressant drugs to prevent the immune system from attacking the transplanted organ. It is obvious that these immune suppressant drugs lower the body’s immunity and thereby makes the body more prone to HPV infection, which is a high risk factor for cervical cancer.
Smoking also increases the odds of developing cervical cancer. Some of you might ask how that is possible. There are two ways that smoking increases the risk for cervical cancer. It is a well-known fact that cigarettes contain carcinogenic chemicals. When you smoke, these harmful chemicals enter your bloodstream via your lungs. They then end up in various parts of your body, including the cervical mucus.
Researchers and doctors point out that these chemicals (especially benzyrene) somehow damage the cervix, including the inner lining of the cervix. The inner lining consists of Langerhans cells, whose job is to fight against infections and diseases in the cervix. If these cells get damaged, it is obvious that they will be unable to fight against HPV infection, a risk for cervical cancer.
Another way that smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer is by damaging your immune system, which we know by now helps the body fight against HPV infection. Statistics show that women who smoke and also have HPV infection double their risk for cervical cancer as compared to women who do not smoke or do not have HPV infection.
Multiple Births and Early Birth
Women who have three or more children are at increased risk for cervical cancer. Doctors do not really know why this is the cases, but they have put forth some hypotheses. Doctors argue that in order to have children women have to have unprotected sex. More children simply translate into increase in the number of times a woman has unprotected sexual intercourse. Increase in the number of unprotected sexual intercourse means that you have also increased your exposure to cervical cancer causing HPVs.
Doctors also argue that it is possible that a woman’s immune system becomes weak during pregnancy and this increases their risk of getting HPV infection. Some doctors and researchers also argue that hormonal changes during pregnancy might make women more prone to HPV infection.
Similarly, women who had their first child at the age of 17 or before are also at increased risk for cervical cancer. Researchers point out that women who had their first child at 17 years of age are more likely to have more sexual partners than women who had their first child at 25 years of age. More sexual partners mean increased exposure to cervical cancer causing HPV infection.
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Birth Control Pills
Various studies have shown a direct link between usage period of oral contraceptives and cervical cancer. These studies have also shown that once a woman stops taking oral contraceptives, the risk for cervical cancer gradually decreases.
Between 1940 and 1971, women in US and other developed countries were prescribed diethylstilbestrol (DES) to avert miscarriages. The usage of this hormonal drug was stopped, because doctors noted an increase in incidence of cervical cancers in women whose mothers took this drug when they were in the womb.
It has been noted that these women are at high risk for developing clear cell adenocarcinoma of the cervix or vagina. This cancer is very uncommon in women whose mothers did not take DES. Thus there is a clear link between DES and clear cell adenocarcinoma of the cervix and vagina.
If there is a family history of cervical cancer, it increases the odds of developing cervical cancer by two or three times.
Poverty and Poor Diet
Women in poor countries are at increased risk for cervical cancer. This is, because they do not have access to proper health care services. This means that they are unable to afford Pap smears, pelvic exams, and other tests that can screen pre-cancerous cells.
This obviously means that they are more likely to develop cervical cancer in the future. Women who do not eat enough vegetables and fruits are also at increased risk for cervical cancer. The exact reason for this is not known.
Awareness Leads to Decrease in Risk
Increased awareness of cervical cancer and its risk factors will reduce the risk for this disease. This point has been proven in countries like, USA and UK. Moreover, the introduction of Pap smears and pelvic exams in these countries brought about a drastic reduction in the death rate of cervical cancer. If the same can be done in developing countries, we can see a drastic drop in the death rate of cervical cancer worldwide.
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